Symbolic Anthropology

Dame Mary Douglas (1921-2007)

Mary Douglas, British anthropologist, known for her writings on human culture and symbolism. Her area is social anthropology, where she is considered a follower of Durkheim, with a strong interest in comparative religion. She was born as Margaret Mary Tew in San Remo, Italy; her parents were in the British colonial service. She had a Roman Catholic education at the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton. She went on to study at the University of Oxford from 1939 to 1943; there she was influenced by E.E. Evans-Pritchard. She worked in the British Colonial Office until 1947, when she returned to Oxford to take up graduate study she had left. She studied with M. N. Srinivas as well as Evans-Pritchard. In 1949 she did field work with the Lele people in what was then the Belgian Congo; this took her to village life in the region between the Kasai River and the Loange River, where the Lele lived on the edge of the previous Kuba kingdom.  Mary Douglas is best known for her interpretation of the book of Leviticus, and for her role in creating the Cultural Theory of risk.In Purity and Danger, Douglas first proposed that the kosher laws were not, as many believed, either primitive health regulations or randomly chosen as tests of Jews’ commitment to God. Instead, Douglas argued that the laws were about symbolic boundary-maintenance. Prohibited foods were those which did not seem to fall neatly into any category. For example, pigs’ place in the natural order was ambiguous because they shared the cloven hoof of the ungulates, but did not chew cud. Douglas claims that rituals of purity that focus on sexuality are meant to mark the boundaries of the human body, in the same way by which the boundaries of society are marked.  She begins “Purity and Danger” by stating what she considers obvious, that “ambiguous things can seem very threatening” (xi) and claims that “taboo is a spontaneous device for protecting the distinctive categories of the universe… taboo confronts the ambiguous and shunts it into the category of the sacred”.  Douglas’ observations about the differences in traditional African societies’ views of risks such as sorcery led her to formulate a functionalist theory of how social structures generate supportive worldviews. She developed this more fully into the Cultural Theory of risk in Risk and Culture, written with political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. While the Cultural Theory of risk has not been hugely important within anthropology, it has made an impact on the inter-disciplinary field of risk perception.

Victor Turner (1920-1983)

Victor Witter Turner was born on 28 May 1920 in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of Captain Norman Turner, an electronics engineer, and Violet Witter, founding member and actress of the Scottish National Theater. At the age of 11, Turner left Scotland and went with his divorced mother to live with his maternal grandparents in Bournemouth, England. After attending Bournemouth Grammar School, he studied English language and literature at University College of London (1938-41). During World War II, Turner, a pacifist and objector to military service, became a non-combatant bomb disposal soldier in Britain. In 1943 he married Edith Davis who remained his wife and collaborator throughout his life. After the war the Turners and their two sons lived in a gypsy caravan near Rugby Town, England, a proper home being unobtainable due to German bombing. In the public library there, Turner came across Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead and The Andaman Islanders by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. From these books Turner discovered that tribal life was even more down-to-earth than that of the British soldier which he had experienced during the war. He decided to study anthropology at University College of London, where he attended the seminars and received his B.A. with honors in 1949. Max Gluckman, the exiled South-African anthropologist and spiritual leader of the Manchester School, then offered Turner a grant from the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute to carry out fieldwork in an African tribe. Turner accepted and was assigned to the Mambwe tribe. However, he never reached the Mambwe homeland; during his stay at the Institute in Lusaka he received a telegram from Gluckman: “Suggest you change to Ndembu tribe Northwestern Province much malaria yellow fever plenty of ritual” (E. Turner 1985:2). In 1950 the Turners moved to the Mukanza village in the Mwinilunga district of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Here Victor Turner started his fieldwork among the Ndembu.

Clifford Geertz (1926 – 2006)

Clifford James Geertz (August 23, 1926, San Francisco – October 30, 2006, Philadelphia) was an American anthropologist who is remembered mostly for his strong support for and influence on the practice of symbolic anthropology, and who was considered “for three decades…the single most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States.”[1] He served until his death as professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Clifford James Geertz was born in San Francisco, California on August 23, 1926. After service in the U.S. Navy in World War II (1943–45), Geertz received his B.A. in philosophy from Antioch College in 1950, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1956, where he studied social anthropology in the Department of Social Relations. He taught or held fellowships at a number of schools before joining the anthropology staff of the University of Chicago (1960–70). He then became professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton from 1970 to 2000, then emeritus professor. Geertz received Honorary Doctorate Degrees from some fifteen colleges and universities, including Harvard University, the University of Chicago and the University of Cambridge. He was married first to the anthropologist Hildred Geertz. After their divorce he married Karen Blu, also an anthropologist. Clifford Geertz died of complications following heart surgery on October 30, 2006 Please keep in mind of how these three correlate with one another, we will test your knowledge of how to use their theory in an everyday setting.

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  • jesteenburns  On April 22, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    I like symbolic and interpretive anthropology as a reading subject. I appreciate the topic for its ability to steer away from making anthropology a strictly scientific field. I have always been of the opinion that numbers, data, and functional equations are a bit over-stretched in their use within the anthropological field. Honestly, it may just be my lack of exposure to a wide breadth of articles (obviously this book only gives us a very narrow breadth of examples) however I did not feel that even those pushing for scientific recognition were doing that good of a job. I believe in Anthropology as a social science not a natural science, therefore it is much more along the lines of history, where the scientific factor comes from analyzing and interpreting information within its context and for what it is, not a production of tables, graphs, and theorems.
    Turner’s article did a good job of defying this reach to achieve scientific recognition. His entire relation of the significance of the milk tree and symbols in the Ndembu culture was incredibly interesting and the type of research and literature that made me want to become an anthropologist in the first place.
    Turner’s suggestion that symbols be interpreted not only at the individual ritual level but also in the system as a whole, and its connection to any other culture that may have the same symbol is a great way that we as anthropologist can examine these types of situations. As we discussed last week, there are many ways in which something can be interpreted depending of the circumstantial factors surrounding the ritual, culture, and anthropologist, that by studying these symbols at different level we may be able to better understand the true(er) significance of it.

  • Martha T.  On April 23, 2012 at 11:48 am

    I enjoy the complexity of symbolic anthropology, but I think this complexity can lead to confusion. Because there is such a multitude of options for interpretations of why cultures do and think the way they do, it gets very tricky very quickly. Symbolism is open to interpretation, and some things may not be so clean cut as they seem to be. Even while interviewing members of the same society, there may be discrepancies. For example, asking Americans about topics such as diet or exercise will get a plethora of different responses. Asking a vegetarian and a body builder about protein food sources and how much protein is needed will generate very different responses.

    In Douglas’s article she discusses the effects of symbolism that can be observed in a culture. Although the ideas of the culture motivating these effects may be unseen, the physical rituals and practices motivated by these beliefs make them very real. These rituals help us to understand the mentality of a society. For example, the Nacirema carry out many body rituals. These rituals are very painful- such as baking one’s head in an oven for over an hour, but they display the Nacirema’s inherent belief that the body’s natural tendency is disease and debility.

    • Arlyne Boyer  On April 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      …what a strange and silly bunch – those Nacirema 🙂

  • Dale H  On April 23, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    The book says that for Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropologists their fundamental interest is in how people formulate their reality. I like how that is stated. Furthermore, like language, they explain how we use symbols to communicate with each other and how these symbols constitute a shared system of meaning that is only understood in a particular historical and social context. They believe we construct our own cultural reality. “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” (this quote is on p. 438 although I have pretty much plagiarized everything I have written so far from that same page) Then there are some interesting articles covering subjects such as public bowel evacuation and defecation, body pollution, blood, pus, excreta, semen, oral and anal eroticism, cocks and cockfighting, and my newly discovered favorites — nasal treacle and nasal rheum. No one can say I didn’t learn anything in college!

    • Arlyne Boyer  On April 26, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      …all that icky stuff you mentioned is pretty much the stuff I skimmed over…TMI

  • fionaalanna  On April 23, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    I agree with Jesteen that I can appreciate the attempt to move away from the “hard sciences”, or at least reevaluate that approach. To be honest, I don’t know why people care so much whether any subject can be categorized as a “hard science”. What makes that label so desireable? I think there’s much more potential knowledge to be gained outside of those subjects, anyway.

    I like the idea that culture can come from interpretatioins of events and things that occur within a culture. If you think about it, that’s a lot of what culture is. Cultures all over the world have different explanations for the movements of the sun and moon, etc.and it’s those interpretations that make a culture unique. Of course, I doubt that interpretations of symbols are the only things that make up a culture.

    But Turner’s idea that symbols help maintain a society makes quite a bit of sense. In my world mythology class, we’ve gone over a theory that explains myth as a way of maintaining the status quo. In a lot of these myths, there are signs that support the social hierarchy. And, of course, there are myths that contain symbols that explain cultural practices. For some reason, this makes me think of the movie Apocalypto, when the priest is sacrificing all these prisoners and stops only when the eclipse occurs. To the characters in this movie the eclipse was a sign that their god had been satisfied by the sacrifices and would remove the punishments of famine and disease from the society. This symbol helped to justify certain unsavory cultural practices.

    I believe I’m rambling yet again, but I’m sure there’s something relevant in all that mess.

  • surey  On April 24, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Symbolic anthropology believed culture cannot be use in science and math. I think it is impossible since those can hardly define human thinking, how can it measure culture which symbolic anthropologists believed occur through mental phenomenon. “Culture, they believed, is embedded in people’s interpretations of the events and the things around them (pg. 428).” This comments makes me think of what Fiona mentioned in her comment about “myths that contain symbols that explain cultural practices.” It is just like the medieval age, when Christianity was at its peak and there were paintings of emperor and empress to depict themselves with the power of god. Which refers to the quote on pg. 428 about culture. God was all powerful, and through the painting, use as propaganda, the person is seen as all powerful. It really depends on where and when something happens that makes a society and culture to turn out the way it is.
    In Douglas’ essay, she writes alot about the human body symbolizing society because everyone has a common experience through it. Especially when she states the genital bleeding of males because of their envy of female reproduction. This is a symbol of their society to demonstrate the similarities and differences of male and female.

  • EarlP  On April 24, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology reminds me of the materialist theories of earlier chapters we studied. Mary Douglas writes about the symbolic nature of “breast milk and saliva,” representing something in society. This idea is similar to materialist thinking that certain items maybe not specifically the human “flesh” like Douglas states, but items represent an idea or something in a social role. So, I can appreciate the symbolic theories from these Anthropologists. Like Jesteen stated in her post, I too think of Anthropologist as a Social Science and not a hard fact science. I also think that using symbolic and interpretive ideas allows Anthropologist to think even further outside the “box,” using the post-modernist ideas to create a better interpretation, a broader view, and possibly a modern interpretation to all aspects of culture.

  • Roxie  On April 24, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Symbolic anthropologist treat culture as a mental phenomenon, really, is it?
    They also believe that culture does not exist apart form individuals but rather lies in their interpretations of events and the things around them. That we construct our own cultural reality. This is something that i can relate to; it also leads up to postmodernism.
    This week we received an email, stating we should bring something to class, that is symbolic to us, and has meaning. I found this difficult, so i asked some friends and coworkers, What kinds of things they would bring if they had to. Some said things like movie ticket stubs that they saved, maybe from a first date, some said an earring that had meaning to them, but looking at things that were said anything could be found as a symbol, meaning something different from each person. Personally I don’t keep anything that I believe has no function, as for things that have meaning they are things like my memories and talking to the people who experienced things with me is enough. (maybe even making a phone call to talk to them, or visiting them)

    • Arlyne Boyer  On April 26, 2012 at 1:47 pm

      I found the task a bit difficult also, as it made me think about what things mean to me. In hindsight, if I had just asked myself which of my things make me say things like “My grandma gave me that so BE CAREFUL with it!” , I might have been able to interpret the symbolism quicker.

      or, maybe people today really just don’t have symbols anymore… is an iphone a symbol?

      I have bracelets that I wear everyday…all bought at different times in my life. When I got each one I was not thinking I was creating a symbol, instead each one came to represent a very specific decade in my life and when I catch myself mindlessly rubbing them or staring at them, I am taken back to those days…

      I have discovered that I might be a symbol-junkie…

  • CorrinaC  On April 24, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    This section on symbolic anthropology and interpretation was really fun to read through. Especially Geertz, I think that a lot of people can relate with his experience in Bali, not necessarily the atmosphere but by sharing an experience and one that had dire consequences it was something that he can identify with the people and they with him. He saw symbols as vehicles of culture, in that symbols transmit meaning and communicate ways in which people should see, feel, and think about the world. Unlike Turner, Geertz was not very interested in the social effects of symbols but rather deciphering which acts were symbols and how they shape the way people think and communicate about the world, how they influence persons and social relations. The cockfighting itself was a representative symbol of themselves that he described through thick description interpreting a series of events as it is structured. It wasn’t an activity that was just done, but it had its own defining culture that communicated how each man felt about each other. Most people have things that have symbolic meaning, perhaps even traditions that are initiated on specific days or times, but it was interesting to read about this activity of cockfighting and how its role seemed to be very independent -from what I understand- because its core being animalistic. Geertz emphasized the communication of what cockfighting can mean, but at the same time it was seen not just sacred-like but like their own deity of sorts as nothing humanistic is allowed to reflect animalist tendencies. Was it because of fear or the opposite? On a light note, Geertz kept me entertained throughout the reading since it was not just analytical, but story like in a very detailed way, but keeping the ball rolling on the subject at the same time.

    • Arlyne Boyer  On April 26, 2012 at 1:30 pm

      I think Geertz called the cockfight phenomena a ‘socialorganism’ … it takes on a life of its own … and I suppose the cockfighting culture and its associated gambling techniques is the vehicle that promotes it.

      I like Geertz too…

  • Bryan Swarts  On April 24, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    I like what Jesteen and Dale said about Anthropology being a nice blend between art and science. Though, even with taking personal opinions and perceptions about something, can we really only label it into either “art” or “science.” To me, art is the expression of emotions and experiences, while science is used to understand the world in which we live in. One tells us to be free, the other requires rules. This is where I like what Martha said: “Even while interviewing members of the same society, there may be discrepancies.” Consider for example: music. Music has traditionally been seen and can be commonly looked at as art. It expresses who we are, how we feel, what we have experience, and can bring about moods in those listening. But, it can also be seen very much as a science. Take in to consideration anyone who has ever read music; it is extremely complex and rule-based. Beats per measure, tempo, tone, and many other things are needed to create what most would call “music.” I think we need to consider both, and that both points are valid (and I often switch between them). If math is pure science, then how can mathematicians call a formula or equation “beautiful” and “the essence of nature” (Greeks believed this; the Parthenon was built because of a specific “perfect number” rule that they thought was the formula of nature and the essence of beauty and perfection)? If I am in a painting class and paint how I feel, then how can the teacher claim that what I have done is not “art” because I didn’t follow the “rules?” I think art and science are perceived in different things to the individual, as well as the culture. Symbols in art and science can only be understood by the individual who takes interest. We create our own arts and sciences where we see fit. That is where individual reality comes from, and combining all of these turns into a collective reality, which can be seen as culture. A group of people who see pigs as an animal they cannot eat may be grouped together to form their own culture. Within that we can divide the culture into whatever else they can possibly differ on, such as sexuality and language. This division and understanding, quite possibly perceived as a body of life in its own right, can be taken as very artistic and scientific.

    • Arlyne Boyer  On April 26, 2012 at 1:03 pm

      …regarding your 1st two sentences…I like to think of it as the “art of science” and not “art or science”…

      • Bryan Swarts  On April 26, 2012 at 7:38 pm

        And that is my point; it is all about perception. My question is why do we see art and science the way we do. Is it fair to call something “only” artistic or scientific and that is all it is?

  • Rosalva  On April 25, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    Symbols can represent and contain meaning that can be open to interpretation. For example Arlyne and Elizabeth had an activity that would illustrate people’s opinion on what the material being presented meant and if it had any connection to a larger group. There would probably be different answers and interpretations of what each individual saw and perceive the item to hold. I could see how people might have different answers and others with the same answers. There are symbols that have a connection to a larger group such as a student ID. Maybe what Geertz said that we are searching for meaning or are trying to create our own reality might be true. Since we are always looking at symbols and creating our own ideas about what it means. Some symbols may have the same meaning and be share with a larger group others may not be shared only the individual themselves.

    • Arlyne Boyer  On April 26, 2012 at 1:21 pm

      I typed up everyone’s answers for their own symbols so that we can compare them to what the group thinks. I think the data is going to be very interesting… people have belief symbols, relationship symbols, and daily symbols that just perform a function… the student I.D. is a good example of conecting to a larger group…layers and layers of other groups

  • Alvarezm  On April 26, 2012 at 11:32 am

    The activity that Arlyne and Elizabeth did in class on Wednesday really help explain the reading i believe, every time somebody applies the theory it’s a lot easier to understand. The activity showed that although we believe we know what a symbol means, other people can interpret it different, or there can be many means for one symbol. I really enjoyed the reading actually, I was interesting to see how we see and value symbols. For example, my seven year old nieces bought me an old, torn painting of a horse while she was at a flee market. My niece knowing how much I love horses tells me she found it and bought the painting with her own money. This of course was very touching to me, so I got the painting and hung it up on my wall. When friends come to visit they tell me how ugly and old the paining is, but because of the meaning behind the painting I love it. This relates to the reading because it shows that we apply our own meanings to these symbols, meaning that one symbol can have many different meaning for different people! People can see the painting as old and torn, but I see love and thoughtfulness!

    • Arlyne Boyer  On April 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      How we (as blossoming anthropologists) personally view symbols is probably reflected in how we interpret (or misinterpret) the symbols of others… and your point about how we see and value symbols, illustrated by your example of the horse painting is a really good example.

  • Stephen Sanchez  On April 28, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    The activity that Arlyne and Elizabeth set up for us on Wednesday allowed us to glimpse what a person would be attempting to interpret as they traverse the globe exploring and identifying different elements of the various cultures. Symbols are very important to cultures around the world, being able to identify the primary symbol of the culture being studied would allow one to engage in a better understanding of the people of that particular culture. The symbols can allow one greater insight on the people whom deem them valuable and could allow anthropologists the ability to further understand how a society develops around certain symbols.
    One of the Anthropologists who focused on symbolic anthropology addressed how symbols worked with veiws similar to British structural functionalism. Victor Turner viewed symbols as “mechanisms form the maintenance of society” (pg. 439). He believed that ritual symbolism would contain the ongoing social order and renew it. Relating to his idea of renewal, I forgot to ask the class; how does the object (one you brought to class) in the culture and society you were brought up in tie into bigger rituals pertaining to your particular culture? How does that symbolic object channel the emotions from the particular ritual it is being used for and how might it act as a renewal for the society in general?

  • mirrferr  On April 28, 2014 at 11:20 am

    Of course that even if there were 200 people on this Earth, there would be different interpretations of culture. WIthin a persons own family, circle of friends and classmates, there are so many different positions and viewpoints of culture. Two twins who were raised in the same household could even view culture as something completely different than the other. It is all based on someone’s history, what sort of things they have been through culturally and personally.

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